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In the 1945 John Ford film, starring John Wayne and Donna Reed, the expendables were the Navy seamen who were left behind in the Philippines to allow Douglas MacArthur and other commanding officers to escape the impending Japanese invasion.

Today, it is tenure-track faculty who are increasingly expendable.

The subtitle of an article by David Johnson in the latest issue of Change magazine conveys a message that shouldn’t be ignored: “Why Professors as Educators Should be Anxious About Becoming Non-Essential.”

Johnson’s essay identifies three kinds of online courses that minimize the professorial role – YouTube courses, PowerPoint courses, and publisher designed courses.  But the threat is even greater than the article suggests.  

  • Service courses – including foreign language courses, rhetoric and composition sections, and many introductory-level courses – are increasingly relegated to instructors outside the tenure system: lecturers, adjunct faculty, postdocs, and in many instances graduate assistants. 
  • Scaled online courses, including many at the master’s level, rely heavily on adjuncts, with regular faculty’s role limited to digitized lectures.
  • Prepackaged, standardized (“canned”) classes offered in online and face-to-face formats that (in theory) radically reduce preparation time and eliminate adjuncts’ need to create a syllabus, PowerPoint slides, activities, and assessments.
  • Self-paced, self-directed competency-based models that “unbundle” the faculty role by using content-area specialists and course designers to create learning experiences and substitute course mentors, coaches, and graders for traditional faculty.
  • Emporium models that rely on interactive computer software with assistance provided largely by graduate teaching assistants and peer mentors.

Defenders of these models point to a number of purported advantages:

  • Cost savings, including savings on course, activity, and assessment design and instructional staffing, which are urgently needed at a time of financial stringency.
  • Time savings, which allow instructors to devote more time and energy to helping individual students.
  • Standardization of course quality and evaluations of student learning.
  • Ensures equity, by safeguarding students from poor instructors.

Of course, what’s missing from this list are the very factors that can make courses into rich, stimulating experiences. These include instructor presence and regular, substantive interaction with and feedback from an expert scholar.

Certainly, technology – in the form of interactives, simulations, animations, augmented and virtual reality environments, and even auto-graders – can supplement and enhance the educational experience. But if technology can substitute for faculty engagement, then faculty should be redeployed to higher impact practices, including mentored research, problem solving sessions, role-playing exercises, and discussion and debate.

David Johnson is struck by the passivity of tenured faculty to acquiesce in the face of these threats to the professoriate. Instructor-proof, scripted courses have the effect of de-professionalizing teaching. Such courses tend to emphasizes content transmission and skills transfer rather than deep understanding, and to downplay the importance of expertise, professional judgment, and the ability to improvise and adjust to student needs and interests.

But the willingness to accept the erosion of the professorial role is not limited to faculty members. Students, parents, and, perhaps most strikingly of all, accreditors have also accepted these “faculty-free” approaches with few complaints – and without substantial evidence that the learning outcomes are similar.

One might have thought that MOOC experience had conclusively demonstrated that with the exception of the most highly motivated, well-prepared learners, students need something more than packaged or programmed learning. Even the best courseware needs to be supplemented with interactive instruction. David Johnson raises a rhetorical question that demands to be answered: Do we really want faculty to become bystanders rather than educators

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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